Nature’s Companions

Visitors interacting with artwork by Maria Dumlao, Installation view Companions, Schuylkill Center, 2022. Photographer: Ricky Yanas

Cultures and communities define themselves through food. ‘You are what you eat’ is both an adage about nutrition and a reflection on food as an integral part of our social identity. But what these foods are, in turn, is defined by species that live and grow in our landscapes and by foreign relatives—plants, animals, people—that migrate and travel around the globe. 

The Schuylkill Center’s newest art exhibition explores how we, as individuals and as a community, define ourselves at home—through food and companionship. Blending art, ecology and food culture, Companions – mas masarap magkasama (a Filipino phrase that roughly translates to ‘more delicious together’), includes newly commissioned work by Filipino-American artist Maria Dumlao along with Nicky Uy and Omar Buenaventura of the collaborative Bahay215

Maria Dumlao, Naturalized, archival inkjet on canvas, 2022. © Maria Dumlao.

Inside the gallery, natural and metaphorical ingredients from botany to commerce are assembled into colorful prints that tell the hidden stories of indigenousness, colonization and food culture between the Philippines and North America. One of them, hanging prominently from a bamboo stick in the gallery, is an enormous print of a pineapple with decorative waxy leaves and its characteristic pattern around the stem. Printed on canvas in Pantone’s tropical color palette, the image seems at first glance overexposed. But activating the image by looking through transparent filters in red, green, and blue – RGB, the colors that make up the visual images we encounter daily on monitors, mobile devices, and digital photography – the filters reveal different stories in shades of white, black and many grays in between. Through the red lens the pineapple appears like a hand-drawn botanical illustration, yet through green the fruit exposes a body filled with cans of SPAM. The pineapple, arguably a symbol of the tropics (from the perspective of American industry, it must be noted), is a major food item in the Pacific Islands. But so is the processed pork meat that during the American annexation of the Philippines the invading colonizers brought to Filipinos’ tables. 

Other prints in the exhibition reveal invasive yet edible knotweed spreading over homes, migrating honey bees naturalizing into new landscapes, extinct passenger pigeons swirling over industrialized countrysides (exterminated due to humans hunting them as food), tropical species creeping into our floral home design, and ships carrying goods (look out for the mermaid) around the globe. The prints set the stage for a dialogue about our understanding of landscape diversity as we cultivate plants and creatures for the global economy and food market. Who is welcomed and who is excluded? When does a migrant become native to their new home? 

Making yourself at home is an intimate desire of all species, as illustrated by the exhibition’s outdoor installations. Two of Dumlao’s large-scale prints, mounted on the outside of the Visitor Center, are accompanied by bamboo structures that are loosely inspired by the concept of a bahayan kubo, a stilt house original to the farmed fields of the Philippines. The Tahanan (Filipino for intimate bahay) and pugad (Filipino for hive) open up colorful views into our changing landscape.

Maria Dumlao, Local Extinction (woodland bison), Installation view at the Schuylkill Center, 2022.

Companions afifrms a point made by celebrated ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who notes that growing together as species in an environment is a reciprocal matter of beauty as well as of ecology. For example, when purple Hyssop is brightly flowering next to yellow Yarrow (check out native plants displayed in the gallery), these edible herbs do more than simply attract pollinators for their own survival. Their complementary colors are the art of brilliant companionship.

“My work serves as a connective tissue,” explains Maria Dumlao, “embracing the histories lived, both documented and undocumented.” Companions aims to spark conversations about the migratory paths of plants and people and open our eyes to the delicious fascination of nature. Unfolding the hidden and untold stories of the displaced, the exhibition is a contribution to combating ongoing sentiments against Asian American communities as we enter Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month in May. Let nature’s beauty be the entrance point for us to reconsider our perception of today’s land, people and interrelationships.

Companions is open until August 6, 2022 at the Schuylkill Center. Look for summer programming for the whole family around foraging, food stories and art making. Learn more about the exhibition online and about edible native plants through the Center’s native plant sale.

Visitors interacting with installation by Maria Dumlao and Bahay2015, Installation view Companions, Schuylkill Center, 2022. Photographer: Ricky Yanas

By Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

LESS IS MORE

Guests explore the gallery during December’s opening reception of LESS IS MORE.

If you visit our art gallery, you won’t find any real or crafted plants, any carved or photographed trees, any mapped or painted landscapes. Instead, in Makeba Rainey’s show LESS IS MORE: The Nature of Letting Go, you’ll see large fabric portraits overlaid with patterns of African wax cloth, a Kwanzaa altar, a wall of church fans, and a cozy corner stocked with books. And you may wonder: how is this environmental art?

The answer is both clear and complex—namely, we humans are also part of nature.

We are not separate from our “environment” and the climate crisis is as much a social crisis as it is a material one, so its solutions must take both into account.

As Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art, puts it, “I believe today’s environmental practice can express itself in many ways—as a public action, political demonstration, or personal behavior. But it can also be a social practice that grows on building empathy across communities.” Ecology also works at the human level and in relationships between human communities; if they’re frayed, then our relationship with the environment will also suffer.  

Tina continues, “I invited Makeba Rainey to the Schuylkill Center because I was fascinated by the care and respect her works embody for community, particularly the Black community in the region”—because Rainey’s LESS IS MORE is created specifically by and for Black people, a group (in Philadelphia and around the country) that has historically been subject to high levels of environmental racism, from unchecked air pollution and contaminated water to redlining in districts with comparatively little tree cover. The sacred and memorial space Rainey has created in the gallery offers a much-needed counter: an invitation for healing, rest, and rejuvenation. All are vital for building and sustaining Black community.  

The show also pushes back against a dominant capitalist ideology of never-ending growth and linear progression, instead insisting that we are part of a cycle of life and death—and that cyclicality, with its inherent sustainability, is worth celebrating. Throughout the gallery, birth, life, and death coexist and move in a circle rather than a line: starting in one corner with midwifery artifacts from Rainey’s great aunt, tools for bringing new life into the world; moving on to a reading corner full of resources for life and accounts of lives lived; around to a memorial wall with church fans featuring photos of the recently deceased; and finally to a liminal space of an altar surrounded by two portraits, one of a late midwife, the other of a new mother and her child. Look closely and you’ll also find globes and spheres scattered through the space, underscoring this cyclicality.  

Globes and circles can be found throughout the gallery, emphasizing the cyclical nature of life and death.

Moreover, the exhibition not only features Rainey’s work as a visual artist (the two portraits), but also other aspects of her practice: curation and community organizing. Indeed, Rainey directly created only a few items in the gallery and curated the rest from collaborators and community. A bouquet made by Meagan Cook of The Botanic Village and a t-shirt by Sudan Green both stand in memory of a friend killed by gun violence. A haunting and evocative soundscape by Julien Terrell plays from a corner. The church fans feature photos submitted by Philadelphians, while the book collection reflects lists curated by a host of Black librarians, booksellers, activists, and educators. Again and again, Rainey reminds us: care for each other and care for the planet will be found in community.  

Similarly, the exhibition does not end where the gallery walls do. Rather, intrinsic to the show are the events programmed alongside it, opportunities to put the show’s themes into embodied practice: cultivating protected space Black community, honoring connection, and finding peace in letting go. These events, a birding outing on March 19 and an art and yoga workshop on March 26, are offered in partnership with In Color Birding Club and Spirits Up!, relationships Rainey brings with her as an artist. While it is easy to consider birding a scientific exercise and yoga a physical practice, in this context they’re imagined more holistically. Birding becomes a way to celebrate companionship, human and non-human alike, and yoga a way to nourish creativity and calm through the power of movement and breath. 

Whether you identify as Black or not, we hope this show inspires you to think about the role our human relationships play in our relationships to other living beings, plants and animals. What does it mean to see environmental and social justice as one in the same, and how can we create systems that allow both to flourish? We invite you to cultivate the regenerative energy of community while exploring what sustainability looks like as a circle, not a line.

LESS IS MORE: The Nature of Letting Go is on view through March 26. To learn more about the Center’s art exhibitions, go to www.schuylkillcenter.org/art.

By Emily Sorensen, Exhibitions Coordinator

LESS IS MORE: A New Exhibition

Photo of Makeba Rainey’s work is courtesy of Mae Belle Vargars.

On Saturday, December 4, our art gallery will be decked out in dazzling portraits of local Black figures, Liberation leaders, and ancestors, created by Philadelphia artist and community organizer Makeba Rainey. Her exhibition, LESS IS MORE: The Nature of Letting Go, will be on display through March 26, and is, as she describes it, “a celebration of a distinctly Black American ingenuity.” Her title refers less to a reverence for minimalism for its own sake than “a call to do the most with the least… as we have always done.” 

Bright colors and patterns of African wax cloth frame defiant, determined, and joyful faces in Rainey’s signature portrait style, one that has evolved since time spent in elementary school playing around with Microsoft Paint. While Rainey’s color palette has always been vivid, the framed faces have come more into focus over time and the surrounding patterning more complex—and more distinctly African. Now a self- (and YouTube-) taught expert in Photoshop, Rainey has pioneered a style that’s increasingly popular thanks to a few “high profile commissions (give thanks!)” and especially social media. Her work has inspired many imitators and garnered more than 14,000 Instagram followers. It’s an artistic sensibility she loves because it “is so accessible and has created a visual language with which to express pride in our African-ness.”

Beyond her own visual artwork, Rainey is transforming the gallery into a healing, memorial space, complete with a restorative reading corner for rest and reflection. This reading space is an extension of a project Rainey has been working on for a while now with a Black artists collective she started—the B(A)LM Community Library—and features books curated alongside other Philadelphia-based organizers, educators, and booksellers. Opposite this corner, another gallery wall will be covered in church fans dedicated to recently deceased members of the Philadelphia Black community. Outdoor wall art and seating (look for a swing!) extend the exhibition onto our grounds, and are an invitation to recharge and take solace in nature. 

Through this medley of spaces and artwork, Rainey explores how Blacks can access the energy of nature necessary for community and self-sustainability. More particularly, she asks us, how do we harness nature while also living in ethical and resourceful accord with it? Especially in this time of global scarcity—keenly and unjustly felt by those living in already under-resourced communities in our city—what does it look like to live sustainably, to find sustenance in ancestors, neighbors, family, and friends? 

In that vein, Rainey’s work is characterized by extensive collaborations with fellow artists, local organizations, and community members. As she puts it, “My community are my collaborators and my collaborators are my community.” For this exhibition, her creative partners include fellow Philadelphia artists Dominique London (creator of Skoolie, a school bus turned into a sustainable tiny home), musician and yogi Sudan Green (of SpiritsUp!) and sound designer Julien Terrell, among others. Together they will provide guided and meditative walks, healing rituals, and sustainable art workshops. 

When asked what she looks for in a collaborator, Rainey says “folks who share the same love and compassion that I have for ALL Black people. Folks who are authentic in spirit and diligent in their craft. Folks who are kind and who give more than they take. Folks who are constantly pushing themselves to be and do better. And, probably most important, people who can’t do what I can.” They’re folks who already are or become her family, and who complement each other personally, artistically, and spiritually. 

For Rainey, community also extends beyond the living; ancestors are as important as one’s current family, whether blood or chosen. The exhibition—its title and the ethos it reflects—is “an expression of gratitude and reverence for our ancestors,” Rainey says. It’s an exhortation to remember “you are who they were. Nothing more. Nothing less.” That’s why she’s covering one wall with church fans featuring photos of the recently deceased. Not only do church fans hold a particular place in Black culture, for Rainey they also help in “imagining their [an ancestor’s] spirit as the wind sweeping over you. Imagine them with you in your moments of respite and of praise… because they are. They are with you always.”

We will celebrate the exhibition’s opening at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 4 with a restorative walk through the Center’s grounds, a ceremonial drink, and conversation between the artist and cultural worker and healer Hakim Pitts. They’ll discuss the exhibition’s inspirations, Rainey’s printmaking process, working with nature, and building community. “When you work with/for the people you love and who love you back,” Rainey says, “the work will always be good.” Please register for the free event.

LESS IS MORE is presented by the Schuylkill Center’s Department of Environmental Art. 

By Emily Sorensen, Exhibitions Coordinator.

Our Native Wildflower Seed Packet Design contest Winner is: Monica Smith!

Monica Smith’s winning seed packet design

We are thrilled to welcome new members to the Schuylkill Center every day! Starting October 1, all new members will receive in their welcome kit our native wildflower seed packet designed by one of our very own Schuylkill Center members, Monica Smith. The contest ran from July 28, 2021, to August 20, 2021, and was open to creatives of all ages and skill levels. We were overwhelmed with the great response and received several beautifully designed submissions that made the decision very difficult. We want to send a special thank you to everyone that participated in the contest!

Monica’s design was inspired by the wildflower patches her husband planted on their farm this past year. She shared with us that the wildflowers provided them with “cheer and beauty” during the pandemic. As they continue to plant their gardens with native flowers, scrubs and trees, Monica hopes that the native wildflower seed packets will “inspire everyone to give them a try!”

Monica also shared that the reason she started receiving the Schuylkill Center’s Quill newsletter was that her dear friend, an artist who passed away last October, requested that memorial donations be made to the Schuylkill Center. Monica found our website and loved what she saw, so she sent a memorial donation. Monica has been a part of the Schuylkill Center community ever since!

Creativity inspires curiosity

Tina Plokarz and Deenah Loeb

The Center’s Board of Trustees bid a fond farewell to Deenah Loeb, who completed three consecutive three-year terms. For most of her tenure, Deenah chaired the environmental art committee working very closely with that department’s director. She has been a tireless advocate for our environmental art program and guiding the use of our land as a living laboratory for how an art program enhances an area’s natural habitat.

Fellow board member, Leah Douglas, appreciated Deenah’s legacy and said, “her dedication, thoughtfulness, and commitment to the art committee has been inspirational. She has consistently proven to think outside the box, and always has the arts be top of mind at the Schuylkill Center.”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz was especially grateful to Deenah who has been a mentor to her prior to joining the staff. Tina spoke on behalf of previous art directors who “have been and continue to be grateful for her breadth of knowledge and her generous availability to always be of assistance.”

In closing, Deenah reminded the board that “we need to inspire the creative voice in whatever we do. Having that creative voice will only further the Schuylkill Center’s uniqueness in Philadelphia and beyond.”

Thank you, Deenah!

By Amy Krauss, Director of Communications

Iraqi refugee brings a piece of his culture to Philadelphia

Artistic team of Al Mudhif at the Schuylkill Center (Yaroub Al-Obaidi, Sarah Kavage, Mohaed Al-Obaidi). Photo: Rob Zverina.

A house built of five crossing arches made of reeds spanned over knotted joists and lattices. Columns and walls strung together with rope and twine, encompassing a breezy and light-flooded space. A shelter in the middle of the woods at the Schuylkill Center. Upon entering, the reed structure offers a shady sitting area with carpets and pillows, inviting guests to gather and relax. Al Mudhif – A Confluence is the new art installation by Iraqi designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi and environmental artist Sarah Kavage in Philadelphia.

In the southern Iraqi marshlands, where it is utilized as a ceremonial space of welcome, a mudhif — Arabic for guesthouse — is traditionally made from top to bottom of the wetland reed called phragmites. There, the reed is socially and culturally essential — but in our latitude, it is considered an unfettered invader of our regional watershed since its importation in the 19th century from Europe and the Middle East. The building of the mudhif in Roxborough has put this ancient material into practical use.

This is not the first time that industrial designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi has applied a natural material, such as reed, wood or glass, to practical design. Back in Baghdad his first projects involved envisioning outdoor sitting units and later school bags in collaboration with Iraqi literary districts in order to engage and connect audiences through visual material.

At that time the physical material was his medium. “But when I came to the United States,” Al-Obaidi explains, “I found myself working with a different material: stories.” A creative shift that the artist sees manifested in the physical construction of the Iraqi guesthouse, Al Mudhif. For him, the house is not only a physical space made in the ancient tradition of Sumerian architecture, but also a symbol for building connections across communities and cultures. 

The story of how an Iraqi designer ended up building a guesthouse from invasive reeds in Philadelphia is both long and interwoven with anxiety, restlessness and uncertainty, but also with empathy, generosity and optimism. A former lecturer on art and industrial design at the University of Baghdad, Al-Obaidi fled Iraq to Syria threatened by extremists in 2007, hoping to return home once the dust of war had settled. But with the continued loss of relatives in Iraq, he and his family realized that their future could only be elsewhere. While working in Malaysia in support of his family, Al-Obaidi along with his brothers and mother applied for refuge to the United Nations. A seemingly infinite number of interviews later, he resettled to Philadelphia as a refugee in 2016 where the family happens to have a distant relative, in the hope to find peace and work in their new home.

 Breaking ground at the Schuylkill Center, Iraqis and US veterans united on Memorial Day.  Photo: Rob Zverina.

“So many people think that [being a] refugee is a choice,” Al-Obaidi says. “They don’t understand that I was forced to do that.” But when Al-Obaidi tells his story of grueling waiting, scrutinization and resettlement, people shift their perspective and start to understand: “I’m not here to take an opportunity,” he declares, “but I’m here to be a part of this community, to contribute through my knowledge, through my experience.”

And this is what Yaroub Al-Obaidi is hoping to achieve through building an Iraqi guesthouse at the Schuylkill Center. “Al Mudhif is a way of building bridges,” he shares his vision – bridges between places, people, and cultures. “And I want to build [these] bridges because this is the only way we can continue to live [together].” He believes that through the guesthouse he can bring a part of his culture to Philadelphia, contributing to the diversity of a city of immigrants and to the richness of indigenous traditions in the local watershed by connecting them to the unique traditions of the Mesopotamian Marshes. Al-Obaidi feels that contributing to diversity has been a literal request to him from the city and its citizens.

Encountering the rich history of Philadelphia has made him feel connected and encouraged him to share the stories from his own culture. Al Mudhif becomes the container for such stories. Al-Obaidi imagines the dialogs that it will spark: “Someone says, ‘Have you been to Roxborough?’ and the other says, ‘I have been to the Schuylkill Center … and I built Al Mudhif.’ ‘What is Al Mudhif’ ‘It is a gathering space.’” Thus, Al-Obaidi enthuses, “a wonderful story starts.”

The project is filled with love, he continues. His hope is that “thousands of Americans start to say Al Mudhif, and know what it [is], and that it is made out of reeds.” Although the guesthouse is reduced in scale and slightly modified from the traditional design, its symbolism as a place of sharing and belonging is much greater. The mudhif, Al-Obaidi believes, has the potential to reduce the gap between the two countries by bringing Iraqi knowledge and culture closer to Americans.

As a refugee and an artist, Yaroub Al-Obaidi sees the mudhif as an “iconic symbol” for rapprochement and belonging that can heal injuries between Iraqis and Americans – invaded and invaders – without resentment or idealism. The idea that healing starts with sharing is also the belief of Al-Obaidi’s artistic collaborator on this project, Sarah Kavage. Al Mudhif is part of her multi-sited art installation, Water Spirits, which features constructions made from natural materials such as phragmites throughout the Delaware River watershed. Through this collaborative work with an invasive plant material she hopes to heal people’s relationship to the natural environment and with each other.

Al Mudhif is the spatial and metaphorical vessel into which people are invited to share their stories and memories. Belonging and sense of home, so it is Al-Obaidi’s belief, are born out of human connections, and connections result out of curiosity.

By Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

Engaging with the Environment through “Homegrown Stories”

Last week, the Schuylkill Center, as well as more than 1 billion people from almost 200 countries, united for Earth Day in the name of improving our planet. As this week of honor and appreciation closes, we are left to reflect how our actions, both large and small, individually and collectively, have an impact on the Earth and our common future. The art project Homegrown Stories explores our natural environment through the lenses of video and film that the Environmental Art Team is excited to share in light of Earth Day. Already in 2020, the Schuylkill Center visually explored the meaning of Earth Day at 50 in the exhibition Ecotactical, which considered what new insights Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the middle of a pandemic provided us. The Homegrown Stories project considers similar questions and finds that while the world around changes, so, too, do the artistic responses to climate change, environmental injustice, and humanity’s exploitation of nature. 

 

In art, environment is everything. Whether it’s the nebulous political or social sphere that influences the artist’s style, subject matter, or intent, or the physical surroundings that contextualize the viewer’s perception of the piece—the shared nature of space is what connects us so deeply through art. In a time when the planet itself is in crisis, as climate change not only threatens humanity but the very foundation of “nature” as we know it, the environment of art has focused itself on The Environment. How we experience it, how we influence it, and how we must work together to save it.

These are the concepts currently being explored by the online video project Homegrown Stories. As outlined on the website, this project began in 2013 as a way for founders LeAnn Erickson and Sandra Louise Dyas to employ a one-shot aesthetic to create videos that delve into the “questions of personal space, the act of storytelling and the primacy of place in shaping one’s world view,” the collaborators explain.

Initially, they focused on their own experiences within the website’s noted theme of “place and space,” integrating both still and moving images from their daily lives. However, Erickson and Dyas quickly realized that regardless of where they traveled or what they focused on, they were only two perspectives on a theme that had a farther reaching effect.

Thus, in 2015, Homegrown Stories began inviting other artists to join in the conversation. Borrowing from creative writing techniques, Erickson and Dyas chose prompts that would serve as inspiration for original videos. With their varied and differing perspectives, each artist added something unique that would enhance the overall experience of the collaborative project.

In an effort to draw attention to the issues that threaten the planet, the year 2020 focused on the elements of the natural environment. Under the prompts of “Water,” “Earth,” “Air,” and “Fire,” Homegrown Stories collaborated with various filmmakers to document and witness, investigate and interpret the effects of climate change as it influences the physical, social, and political world. Often utilizing the pocket technology of smart phones, these videos provide an intimate perspective that not only draws the viewer in, but also creates a unique environment in which they might understand and interact with the art.

“Water”—arguably the most important element to human life, and perhaps the most pressing matter in terms of climate change’s effect on the planet—opened the prompts. Many filmmakers were drawn to focus on the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to flooding events that happened in their local environments. Philip Hopper’s “Flood Stage,” portrays the overflowing Cedar River in Iowa, while “Mississippi River, St Louis Waterfront,” a 360-degree interactive still image by Karla Berry and Don Barth, looks upon the Mississippi as it laps at the St. Louis Arch. As the waters submerge walkways, rush under bridges, and jostle path signs, the artists highlight the struggle of humanity as it tries to protect its structures and infrastructure from the raging waters that its own actions have caused. Hopper, Berry, and Barth aim to raise the alarm for change as they create a visceral experience of the sheer power of this man-influenced, but ultimately natural, element.

Terrarium still #1, LeAnn Erickson and Jake Rasmussen

The next prompt was “Earth”—one that led the artists in many different directions, though all pointing toward the planet’s cry for help. Memo Salazar’s video “Earth by Memo,” features a squishy earth ball that continually attempts to rebound as a human hand smashes and bangs it to a cacophonous soundtrack. “Terrarium,” by Erickson and Jake Rasmussen, takes a much more experimental approach, pairing 1930s voiceover from Encyclopedia Britannica with video images that bubble, mesh, and layer to create a kaleidoscopic perspective. Though the latter focuses more on a representation of the value in the beauty of nature, both videos note the fragility of the earth (whether as a malleable ball or a fracturing terrarium) and ask the viewer to question what it means to interact emotionally, experientially, and physically with the planet and how they might change these interactions for the better.

“Sightseeing” by Mary Slaughter

The year concluded with “Air” and “Fire,” two elements that go hand in hand. The former consisted of videos exploring the notion of breath in a world dealing with police brutality, an airborne pandemic, and the pollution that is destroying our atmosphere. “Fire,” instead, looked at the necessity of a resource that defines civilization, while also illuminating how this same civilization has utilized it as a destructive force. Mary Slaughter’s iPhone video, “Sightseeing,” looks at a traditional Kurama Fire Festival in Japan, meant to honor spirits with torches paraded through the streets. Instead of a reverent, religious event, however, it turns into a tourist spectacle which is marked by an immense police presence. “In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants, looks more closely at fire’s role in industrialization and how it affects our cities and towns. The piece explores the issues of the poverty divide, the building and decaying of urban structures, and the pollution of smoke as it billows out of factory chimneys. Both videos portray the miracle of fire and how it has allowed our society to grow and flourish, but also the negative consequences of such progress.

 

“In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants

The goal of Homegrown Stories is that of all artists—to evoke emotion and reaction and to engage in a conversation about what we hold as progress, truth, and beauty. However, this collaborative project also invites the viewer to find answers through science and political action by providing links in each prompt to resources such as The Thirst Project, Green America, and The Southern Poverty Law Center. Erickson and Dyas are asking for more than passive viewing, they are asking for participation in redirecting our planet’s future. When change is the necessity, then art is the catalyst, information is the momentum, and collective action is the answer.

 

Molly Stankoski, Freelance Writer and Researcher

 

Reflections on Earth Day: One year after its 50 anniversary

Postponed for a year, we’re excited to celebrate Earth Day 50+1 years in 2021. But as we start into new creative endeavors, we want to take a moment to look back at last year’s exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50. On display from September through December 2020, Ecotactical explored how the celebration of Earth Day has changed over time, and asked what the significance of the holiday means five decades after its conception. The exhibition featured works from various artists installed onsite in our gallery and along our trails. Each artist responded in a unique way, giving new perspectives into what Earth Day means to them personally, and to the world. But creating and presenting an exhibition in the midst of a pandemic came with challenges, as well as with new possibilities. We adapted to new timelines, new restrictions and new technologies, but in the end, the message is still clear: Earth Day remains an integral part of the ongoing fight for ecological change and environment justice. We look forward to carrying with us the energy and strength into 2021 that our artists and our team showed in making Ecotactical possible.

With a new year comes new energy behind this movement. We asked the Exhibition Coordinator and the artists to reflect on a series of questions, prompting them to consider the meaning of Earth Day and its relation to the things that have been happening in the world since the inception of the show. Below we share some of their responses and thoughts on this show. 

 

Asking our Exhibition Coordinator, Liz Jelsomine: While working with the artists and for the Schuylkill Center’s staff, how has your view on the world and Earth Day specifically has changed with the pandemic?

Winter 2019/20 was an exciting time at the Schuylkill Center. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day was approaching, and the possibilities of what that meant to our organization and for the future of our world was inspiring. To commemorate, we were gearing up for our annual Earth Day celebration, Naturepalooza, and the Environmental Art Department was planning the final details for our Earth Day themed show, Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50, due to open just before Earth Day on April 16.

Then, suddenly, the world erupted with news of a dangerous and very contagious disease, so devastating that society as we knew it would be put to a halt for the unforeseeable future. We know the disease all too well now as Covid-19. Business closures, job insecurity, isolation from others, and personal loss, were just a few of the hardships society was faced with. The Schuylkill Center made the difficult decision to cancel Naturepalooza. Ultimately, our center, along with many other businesses, had to temporarily close our doors. This left the Art Department with our own questions to ask: Would Ecotactical still be able to come to fruition? How would the context of the show develop during a pandemic? What would a virtual show look like for us?  While the Art Department was grappling with these questions, both our staff and the artists were navigating the new reality in their personal lives. Artists’ access to their studios was altered, and some as parents now had the added responsibility of child care during work time. Those as professors at universities were adapting to online teaching. Some were forced to relocate, making site visits impossible. Meetings about the outdoor installations on our trails became difficult to plan.

With determination and perseverance from our staff and the artists, we were thrilled to finally present Ecotactical on September 21, almost six months after its originally scheduled debut. Armed with plenty of hand sanitizer and capacity guidelines we were able to open our gallery doors and celebrate our reopening in our first virtual reception. Having a way to safely reconnect after much time apart and to process the impact of the pandemic together provided a moment of needed healing. As we look towards Earth Day 2021, we embrace one of the lessons the pandemic has taught us: the importance of spending time together and the value of the natural world around us. 

Installation view of Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

At this milestone in Earth Day’s legacy, what are your thoughts on engaging communities in Earth Day activism and in your artistic process specifically?

I am still struggling with how to make community activism tangible to kids, and how to have students see the results of their hard work. In the original version of our musical, the villains, “Businessman 1” and “Businessman 2,” come around and realize that green jobs are the way to go. But that ending never sat well with me. It felt too Pollyanna. So we rewrote the ending to reflect what actually happens in real life: The Businessmen decide that the oil refinery expansion project (which the child protagonists are fighting against throughout the play) is not right for them after all and they chalk it up to various other reasons, none of which is the kids’ activism: they wanted to spend more time with their families; they realized it was not financially viable at this time; etc. This is what children are up against in our world right now: the biggest culprits of environmental pollution will never admit when activism was successful. And it can be a slow process on top of that. I want to prepare young people for that, and also give them tools to fight back and ways to see what success looks like. The new song is called, ‘Totally Unrelated” and it hasn’t yet been recorded.   

I had an Art History teacher in college who used to say, “All art is propaganda” and that always stuck with me. As a musician, an artist, and an art appreciator, I now see that anything you are planning to show in public becomes a statement. In my band, we are paying more attention to the messages in the songs we choose to play, because when you make art, a message will be conveyed whether you want that or not. So it’s important to think carefully about what you want that message to be. The same goes for teaching: whatever we decide to teach, we are making a statement about what we want future generations to know and how we want them to view the world. It is no small decision.  

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020

Family Concert with Ants on a Log at the Schuylkill Center (2020).

 

What is a new question about the environment that has arisen for you after making your artwork?

I’m watching and wondering, what will we do as individuals and communities, if our government won’t prioritize the Earth, and our systems are designed to fail our most vulnerable populations? I’ve been reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. She continuously reminds us that the relational is the most important, and that nature already has the answers. If we as humans could only mimic what nature shows us, in its rhythms, cycles, and interdependence, we could start thriving. I am grateful for this kernel of hope right now. 

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020:

Installation view of Curious:Think Outside the Pipeline! in Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

As we were struck both personally and professionally with COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, the initial timeline of the exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50 had to change as well. How has the pandemic shifted your perspective on the environmental art world at large and your art practice specifically?

My project For The Future centers on community activism related to Earth Day throughout the history of the environmental movement. The content of the messages on the flags is meant to raise awareness of the activist actions of so many dedicated people: anonymous protesters at Earth Day and Climate marches, Greta Thunberg and the youth movement of Climate Strikers, Indigenous peoples defending some of the last remaining natural resources from extraction and pollution, and climate justice workers in urban environments fighting for the basic human right of healthy air, water and food access. The activism related to the environment is a crucial issue at the heart of our community’s health and prospects for the future.

The pandemic has crystalized my perspective on the environment. Rather than calling for attention at the periphery of social concern, environmental issues are now at the forefront. Looking at how our pandemic slowdown has allowed Earth to heal and how motivated the youth movement is on this issue, I am hopeful that the new administration sees how crucial listening to the science regarding climate change will be. Environmentally minded science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have envisioned what we are living through as a direct result of climate change. The key now is envisioning ways to live with mutual aid as a core value. Mutual aid between humans and between humans and the environment. I believe it will prove to be key to our survival.

 

By Julia Way Rix, presented the installation For The Future, 2020:

Installation view of For the Future on the Schuylkill Center’s trails by Liz Jelsomine

 

The Lands We Cultivate

“The beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability.” Rob Carter

The process of urbanization and our evolving understanding of plants are the main topics that shape the new exhibition Rob Carter: Cultured Lands at the Schuylkill Center. The exhibition features work by environmental artist Rob Carter, who uses historical, scientific, and experiential research to explore the relationship between humanity and nature. 

The exhibition features a selection of Carter’s creative experiments that challenge us to envision a future for our lands in which humanity and nature can sustainably coexist. Developed in partnership with the West Collection at SEI, a major contemporary art collection in our region, Carter’s solo exhibition will open this Thursday, April 15 with a virtual opening reception and artist talk. During the reception, Carter will share his fascination for botany, urban development, and how they shape our shared environment. He will discuss his current research into the history and future of landscapes with Tina Plokarz, the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Environmental Art, and Lee Stoetzel, manager of the West Collection.

“The way humans relate to plant life is fascinating,” says Carter in a recent interview. “I am interested in how we perceive and use it, and how plants, in turn, use us. Our relationship to the natural world, and plants specifically, is an environmental conundrum in terms of climate change and our complicated history.” Plants have recently become his “favorite characters,” he admits, explaining, “the beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability, making them seem almost human in their unique movement and grace.”

Rob Carter: Soy Drawing 4 (GMO), 2020 pencil, watercolour and soy plant ink on paper, Courtesy of the Artist

Cultured Lands features Carter’s work Plant Writing (2020), an artistic experiment with highly processed soy beans, the most valuable US agricultural export. With ink drawings and a time-lapse video, the artist documents the growth and movement of organic and genetically modified soybean plants over the course of several days. He captures both the action of the artist/scientist and the motion of the plants. A process that is quite methodical, but also “as free and instinctual as possible,” as Carter describes his art-making. 

Presented side-by-side with traces of Philadelphia’s colonization history in the gallery, the exhibition is a reminder of the transformation of soil into profitable farmland. The aim of growing ever more productive crops to meet the needs and wants of humanity continues to shape agriculture today. But if humanity is dependent on crops, the artist speculates, how can humans nurture an insightful and empathetic relationship to the natural environment?

Rob Carter: Metropolis (2008), courtesy of the artist and the West Collection

Cultured Lands is also an invitation for dialogue about the transformation of undeveloped land into concreted, industrial metropolises. It features the paper-based stop-motion animation Metropolis (2008), an abridged narrative history of the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, spanning the time period from 1755 to the present, and from a Native American trading path through farming and the discovery of gold to today’s modern city. Part American history lesson, part utopian avant-garde à la Fritz Lang, Metropolis builds a bridge from the urban development dreams of the past to today’s recognition of irreversible human-made influences in the era of the Anthropocene. 

Equally characters and props in our social drama plants and architecture are the lenses through which Carter unravels humanity’s responsibility as a global, Earth-changing force. Carter points to the uncertainties in our knowledge of the natural world and considers how our understanding and relationship to nature might evolve into the future.

The Schuylkill Center looks forward to seeing you in the art gallery. The exhibition is open from April 15 to June 5, 2021 with a virtual reception on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at 7pm. Please register for the opening here.

The Schuylkill Center’s Visitor Center is open, as is the art gallery, but please remember that masks and 6-feet social distancing are required. We also welcome your comments and thoughts in our digital guestbook at www.schuylkillcenter.org/art.

See you online or in the gallery.

 

Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

N.D.E. – Near Death Experience

The photographs in the exhibition Citizen’s Eye were captured by a community of individuals each with their own perspective on the world. Yet, this special collection of images reveals it is profoundly and visually evident we’re all on the same journey. We’re just taking different paths and leaving our own unique footprints behind along the way.

Where there is light there is always shadow. This is the nature of life, seen and unseen. A handful of the submissions for Citizen’s Eye seemed to illuminate this existential truth revealing a tension of duality in both black and white and color photographs. Many of these photos displayed a bold mirroring effect through reflections and silhouettes recalling ideas of “as above, so below”. I was drawn to the photos with sharp contrasts and vivid juxtapositions of energy. I feel they speak to the truth of the soul, the light and shadow in us all. If there is one thing no human will escape before we emerge from this triple pandemic it is self-reflection—the act of facing one’s inner truth: the good and the bad, the ugly and the sublimely beautiful.

Snowy River by Gary Reed

Probably the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with in the past year during the pandemic is the untimely loss of our loved ones. Countless families have had to endure the unimaginable inability to say goodbye. We’ve been robbed of rituals to gather in grief and celebration of our beloveds’ homegoings. I’ve never thought about it much until now. But, when it comes to the language around one’s passing, I always preferred how the death of a living soul was spoken in terms of one’s “sunset.” This exhibition contained many sunsets imbued with both luminous serenity and dark mystique. Photos as a visual medium are not typically works we “hear”. But, there was something about the sunsets of the Citizen’s Eye that are loud with a silent stillness and that demands the respect of the dead and the living.

Hudson Valley by Conezy

This word, alone—sunset—conjures the poetic, bittersweet beauty beheld in the ritual farewell of our life-giving star at the end of each day. The metaphorical sunrise and sunset that book end every individual’s journey speak to mythic elements of the human experience. I think another reason I prefer to compare one’s death to the setting of the sun is because, while no one knows for sure what waits for us beyond our last breath, we would bet our lives that the sun will most certainly rise with each new day. Our human being echoes the eternal rhythm of birth:death:rebirth and our primordial connections to the cycles of nature and time. To think that a loved one’s life may come to an end in this world, but will rise again in the next is a comfort to me worth 1000 suns.

Sunset in December by Elisabeth Torg

For those of us who survived 2020 and its triple pandemic, for those who may have come so close to death but fought hard and were somehow blessed to keep it at bay, we are still here. For me, this past year felt like one long N.D.E. – Near Death Experience. Extensive research documents accounts of survivors who lived through an N.D.E. Individuals report seeing similar visions and voices, crossing thresholds and traversing tunnels of light. They often encounter family with meaningful messages that offer forgiveness and peace. In considering the perspective of the photographers of this series, whose age and demographics were unknown to me, it felt like they were all looking through the lens of the N.D.E that was a year like no other in human history. I couldn’t help but think about the visions I’d want to see at the end of my life. What images would soothe my soul and call me home in such a way I would welcome what comes next? Who would I want to greet me on my solitary path to the afterlife? While my spirit guides and ancestors are a personal matter, one of the images I’ll share that always comes to mind is the ocean. 

While writing this post I had the opportunity to travel to Cape May New Jersey for a weekend getaway. It was my first escape outside of state lines since the global pandemic was declared almost a year ago. I oddly felt like a fugitive and the freedom was intoxicating and admittedly, a bit scary. It was my birthday. The beach holds a special place in my heart and seemed the perfect place to release and honor all that was lost. It also seemed a fitting place to celebrate life and the hope of that next horizon, that inevitable sunrise. In thinking about this essay and all the amazing photos from Citizen’s Eye, I knew I had to end by sharing a photo of my own. This is what I captured:

Ocean view in Cape May by Li Sumpter

 

By Li Sumpter

Li Sumpter, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and multidisciplinary artist who applies strategies of D.I.Y. media and mythic design toward building better, more resilient communities of the future. Her artistic practice—the “art of survival”—addresses threats to mind, body and spirit with a focus on the readiness and resilience of black, brown and indigenous peoples. Li’s academic research explores apocalypse myths and afrofuturist narratives driven by feminine archetypes.

 

Citizen’s Eye is a community art exhibition featuring more than 400 photographs of surprising encounters with nature throughout the pandemic. The exhibition is on view in our gallery and online through March 21, 2021.